Language, Civilisation, Politics, and Malay Chauvinists

November 1, 2018

Language, Civilisation, Politics, and Malay Chauvinists 

by Dr. Sharifah Munirah Alatas

Since 9/11, global scrutiny turned to contentious concepts such as terrorism, mono-polar, bipolar, superpower, economic and cultural imperialism, as well as linguistic colonialism.

It is the latter which is the subject of this commentary because it has stirred harsh, aggressive and sometimes, amusing reactions in the media (local, regional and global), as well as in Malaysia’s recent parliamentary sitting.

A few days ago, Parliament was entertained by the rantings of a particular opposition MP who claimed that English is not an intellectual language. Among the many incoherent sentences that were uttered, he cited examples of ancient civilisations and conquerors, attempting to rationalise that, “English is not an intellectual language that develops the mind and brain”. He also confidently pontificated that “modern economies like Japan, Taiwan and non-English speaking Europeans do not use English in their journey to become developed nations”.

I hope this issue commands the attention of most Malaysians because for a multi-cultural, multi-religious, economically-developing and relatively-peaceful nation, we need to separate the “wheat from the shaft”.

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Linguistic colonialism or imperialism as a concept is a derivative of Edward Said’s conceptualisation of cultural imperialism (in his two famous books Culture and Imperialism, and Orientalism). I doubt, though, that the recent local uproar about the use of English as a medium of instruction of a few subjects in school is based on any knowledge of Edward Said’s work.

Nevertheless, anti-English language crusaders keep creeping out of the woodwork because it seems fashionable. It is glaring that all of these narratives to date have been devoid of historical context. And this makes for extremely wimpy analyses.

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UMNO Intellectuals

Hasan Arifin, BN’s MP for Rompin, is not alone. There are many in Malaysia, among the public, government and elite who feel that English is being “deified”. They also believe that English speakers never created great civilisations. Leaving aside that this notion is erroneous, it also begs the question, “what is a great civilisation?”

In my  understanding, a great civilisation is based on a network of cities (territories) comprising cultures that are defined by the economic, political, military, diplomatic, social and cultural interactions among them.

So, the Roman, Spanish, Arab, French, British and Chinese (with their various dynasties) were great civilisations. How did language then become the signature dish, so to speak, of that civilisation?

Through these empires, languages spread and shifted in dominance. In the past, empires spread their influence through their armies, and after the conquests, so began the social and linguistic assimilation. Between the 3 BC and 3 AD, the Roman Empire was bilingual — Latin and Greek. This was because the Romans knew that Greek was a language of prestige, philosophy and higher education — an “intellectual” language.

Spain succeeded in making over 20 sovereign states today, that speak Spanish, excluding millions of Spanish speakers in immigrant communities in other non-Spanish speaking nations such as the United States, Canada and the Philippines.

Castillian Spanish became the most important language of government and trade. It was the lingua franca of the Spanish empire, a derivative of Latin. Latin was still the “intellectual” language of the Spanish and of the Church.

The Chola Dynasty was one of the longest, most civilised empires in the history of southern India. Tamil and Sanskrit were the official languages.Tamil and Sanskrit are two distinct languages, the former being Dravidian and the latter being an Indo-Aryan language. As we can see, all three great civilisations were bi-lingual.

In 21st century Malaysia, however, we are faced with a backlash of a-historical pundits who reject the ebb and flow of civilisational change, yet advocate for national progress and development.

Let me educate them on the current position of English in the world today. First, it is an intellectual language. The British Empire, between the reigns of Elizabeth I and Elizabeth II (1588-1952), had about 250 million English language speakers. English achieved unique conditions of development. The large continents of North America, Africa and Asia were colonised with industrialisation and trade in mind.

Global conditions at the time facilitated the transition towards the flourishing of English in previously French and Spanish colonial territories of North America and Africa. Due to abundant natural resources and human capital in these regions, the wheels of commerce and trade helped to “deify” (not my word) the English language. English was “at the right place, at the right time”.

Today, all civilisations are enriched by the ideas, thoughts and knowledge disseminated world wide in English. Of course there are other languages that perform this function, but English is predominant.

Second, people like Hasan Arifin and his supporters cannot distinguish between modernisation, Westernisation and imperialism.

Modernisation is the development and application of current and innovative science in the development process of all sectors of society. Westernisation is a process subsumed under modernisation when specifically-Western notions of what it means to be modern are accepted as universal values of modernisation.

Many aspects of Westernisation should not be accepted as modernisation. Imperialism, on the other hsnsd, is the process of domination of policies and ideas with a specific agenda in mind. In history, imperial powers have imposed power and influence through diplomacy or military force.

I think the current discourses in France and India of a “linguistic imperialism” are far-fetched.  Like Westernisation, there is good and bad imperialism. It is also era-specific.

In the 21st century, military and economic powers like the US, China, Great Britain, Japan, Germany and Russia do not mirror the same imperialistic goals of the World War Two era.

Anintellectual, would realise that the need to master the English language is hardly the imposition of an imperialistic agenda.

The inadequacy of the historical-context approach is dangerous for nation building. A system oiled by pseudo-intellectuals who run the policy-making machinery will be suicidal for our “new” Malaysia.

My advice is to be firmly grounded in historical processes, be up-to-date with current economic and socio-political trends and subdue ethnocentric tendencies which are embarrassing and underdeveloped.

Critics of the English language quote China and Japan as being ignorant of the English language, yet they challenge the US and other great powers economically and militarily. It takes more, however, to become a global hegemon.

Anti-English crusaders in Malaysia believe religiously that China and Japan, despite their incapacity to speak and write in English, have reached a level of global economic hierarchy that threatens US and other major power positions. However, even this notion is skewed.

China, for example is known as “the factory of the world” and “the bridge-builder of the world”. But China’s global hegemonic status is in doubt because it lacks the capacity for economic reform, to minimise economic inefficiencies and it has proven inadequate at reforming the financial sector in order to provide investors with consistently profitable returns (the failure of Sri Lanka’s Hambantota port construction is a case in point). Therefore, the issue of language does not figure in the equation.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.


Malay anxiety, exclusion, and national unity

September 21,2018

Malay anxiety, exclusion, and national unity

A fragmented Malay society is making ‘Malay unity’ more urgent for those defeated by GE-14.

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Malaysia’s Bumiputera Policy: Getting It Right this time. Equity or Equality?

August 22, 2018

New Economic Policy should be about meritocracy and competency with equity.. We are only equal in law. In reality, we are endowed with different skills sets and we must celebrate diversity as our strength. No more manja approach in economic policy making for Malaysia.. 60 years of UMNO rule have weakened the Malays. I believe adversity builds strength of character and resilience.–Din Merican

Malaysia’s Bumiputera Policy: Getting It Right this time. Equity or Equality?

“Equality is not the empirical claim that all groups of humans are interchangeable; it is the moral principle that individuals should not be judged or constrained by the average properties of their group.” ― Steven Pinker, The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature.

by S

COMMENT | The spat between the MCA and DAP about the upcoming bumiputera congress comes at an interesting time. As reported in the press, Daim Zainuddin has claimed that the Council of Eminent Persons (CEP) has recommended changes to the bumiputera policy to “get it right this time”.

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The Malays–Dr. Mahathir’s Unresolved Dilemma: Ketuanan Melayu

Of course, if Harapan chooses to make the recommendations from the CEP public, it would save us a whole lot of time but strangely, accountability and transparency do not seem to be the goal of these reform ideas.

Who knows? Maybe this bumiputera congress is all about the “positive mindset change” and change of policy that the council hopes its recommendations will deliver. But really, the idea of the MCA and DAP – two Chinese power structures – attempting to outdo each other when it comes to these issues, is ridiculous.

Each is operating under a specific set of imperatives when it comes to dealing with Malay power structures. Ketuanan Melayu is still the bogeyman, and neither party comes out clean in this squabble. If UMNO attempted to have this congress had it retained power, DAP – not Amanah or PKR – would have been firing salvos at MCA and MIC.

These two dingbats can argue over which non-Malay power structure spooks the Malays more. However, last year, Wan Saiful Wan Jan (who is now a Bersatu political operative) had already argued that affirmative action policies were morally wrong.

What I really like about Wan Saiful’s (photo below) piece, beyond his candour, is that he stakes no middle ground. He argues against affirmative action as something morally wrong and does not attempt to soften the stance by pandering to the politically correct narrative of a “needs-based” approach.

But this fight is really a sideshow. Actually, so is the idea of reforming this policy. It is pointless attempting to define this policy as anything other than a system of discriminatory practices that is the foundation of maintaining political and religious power in mainstream Malay politics. We are not merely talking about a system of rules which could be reformed but rather a mindset that has not only crippled the majority but also the non-Malay minorities.

Can there ever be a “positive mindset change” when it comes to policies which favour a specific ethnic group? What exactly does this positive mindset entail? Or rather how would reforming these policies while sustaining its elements of discrimination and bigotry – secular and religious – increase competitiveness in the economy.

But why stop there? Race and religion are not mutually exclusive in this country and it follows that any reform carried out on bumiputera policies should also include limiting the influences of the state-sponsored religion on the economy.

Has there been any serious research done on how the religion of the state hampers the economy not only in terms of its effect on Malay businesses (which includes the various GLCs and their affiliates) and non-Malay business practices?

How exactly does a government get such a policy right, this time? As reported in the article, and as I had acknowledged elsewhere, even Najib attempted to reform these policies for the same reasons but he was met with resistance by none other than Mahathir and the right-wing elements of his base.

Could there be a change of mindset in the current incarnation of the old maverick? Who knows? If anything, the apocalyptic scenario the Harapan brain trust has painted for this country could be the impetus for radical reforms. Even more reason for the CEP report to be made public.

The meaning of being Malaysian First

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Upholding the 5 Principles of Rukun Negara makes us Malaysians

When right-wing and far-right Malay elements talk about bumiputera privileges, they are not talking about a system of discriminatory practices, they are talking about those privileges in terms of morality, but more importantly, in a definitional sense of what it means to be Malay. Complete hogwash of course, but this is the reason why the idea of reforming the system instead of ditching it completely has always dominated the debate.

For the Malays, losing their rights and privileges is the existential threat that non-Malays and their power structures pose to the community. There is always that caveat that such reform policies would not be at the expense of the non-Malays. Which is ludicrous because the non-Malay communities have thrived despite these policies.

In this day and age – when the brunt of failed policies is felt by the Malay community for obvious reasons – this idea that bumiputera policies would somehow hamper the growth of the non-Malays in an economic sense is misguided.

This is why these far-right types are always going on about how the Chinese community is an economic threat. Since studies – which have demonstrated that the bumiputera equity has suppressed the intended target of these policies – have been ignored, and mainstream Malay structures have shown real intention to seek the truth, we have no idea if the Malay community needs all the help its champions claim it needs.

Just ask Lim Teck Ghee. He quit the Asian Strategy and Leadership Institute (Asli) because the research group distanced itself from its own findings because it went against government orthodoxy.

From The Sun:

” The centre’s report had concluded that the National Economic Policy target of 30 percent bumiputera equity ownership had already been exceeded, and said the official methodology inherited from the 1970s to measure corporate equity distribution was ‘narrowly based’ and ‘unrealistic’.

“According to the ninth Malaysia Plan, bumiputera equity ownership in 2004, as measured by the Economic Planning Unit, stood at 18.9 percent. The Asli report also said it was clear that “selective patronage” had resulted in “serious intra-ethnic Malay cleavages”, and the continued promotion of the New Economic Policy would only increase antagonisms among bumiputeras that some are more favoured than others.”

Here are some sound bytes from the relevant personalities in the article about the findings:

  1. “Utusan Malaysia also quoted former premier Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad as saying the centre’s findings were ‘illogical’ because bumiputera economic control was far below that of other races.”
  2. “UMNO Vice-President Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin has described the report as ‘rubbish’ and challenging the government’s authority, following Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi’s statement that the report was ‘baseless’, ‘inaccurate’ and ‘irresponsible’.”
  3. “Opposition leader Lim Kit Siang said Mirzan had failed to explain how the centre’s methodology was flawed, and how the Economic Planning Unit’s methodology was valid. On criticisms of the report, he said: ‘It is a triumph of brawn over brain and a major setback towards creating a ‘first class mentality”.”

I suppose the only consolation is that corruption and the bumiputera policy are mutually exclusive, in the sense that you could curb corruption within an economic, political and socially discriminatory system.You could do that in such a system, right?

S THAYAPARAN is Commander (Rtd) of the Royal Malaysian Navy.

The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of Malaysiakini.

National Unity or Malay Supremacy?

August 2, 2018

National Unity or Malay Supremacy?

by Amb. Dennis Ignatius
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Malay supremacists see the general election defeat as a setback for the so-called Malay agenda and are pushing back.


In recent days there has been an avalanche of comments on whether the government should recognise the Unified Examination Certificate (UEC) issued by the 61 independent (private) Chinese schools that still survive.

Currently, it is not recognised by local public universities as an entry requirement though local private institutions and some foreign universities do. Both UMNO-BN and Pakatan Harapan (PH) had promised in their respective manifestos to recognise it albeit with conditionalities (Bahasa Malaysia, for example).

Malay rights groups are now working themselves into a frenzy warning that UEC recognition would endanger national unity, jeopardise the existing harmony in the country, endanger the Malay race, undermine sovereignty, and even impact civilisation (whatever that means).

Pawn on a chessboard

Listening to all these shrill warnings makes you wonder if they are referencing some weapon of mass destruction rather than a simple examination certificate. It is mind-boggling that a simple examination certificate issued by a declining number of private schools (comprising less than 2.5% of the total number of secondary schools in the country) has the potential to do so much damage.

But let’s be honest: this whole brouhaha over UEC recognition is not really about national unity or even education policy but about Malay supremacy.

The truth, the ugly truth, is that the UEC issue is merely a pawn on the chessboard of a much wider battle that has assumed fresh urgency in the wake of UMNO’s defeat in the last election. Malay supremacists see the election defeat as a setback for the so-called Malay agenda and are pushing back.

In essence, it is an argument about the kind of nation Malaysia should be: a nation built on equality and justice for all or an apartheid-like one based on Malay exceptionalism.

Malay supremacists tend to see everything as a zero-sum game. They don’t see the appointment of non-Malays to high office (Chief Justice, Attorney-General) as a plus for national unity and inclusiveness but as a setback for Malay power. They don’t see the non-Malay faces in Cabinet as a welcome reflection of our diversity but as an assault on their right to rule exclusively (sans some tokenism to belie their racism).

They’d rather have dishonest men of the ‘right’ race in key positions than good men of the ‘wrong’ race. In their calculus, every step forward for the non-Malays is a step backward for the Malays, every concession made, a threat to their very existence.

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With them, there is no compromise, no common ground, nothing left over to share. Even their definition of terms like national unity and harmony differs from its common usage –unity means respect for Malay supremacy; harmony means non-Malay acceptance of their inferior position.

Of course, it is also a fight for the right to plunder the nation’s resources and enrich themselves at the expense of the very people they claim to be fighting for.

Sheer hypocrisy

They have fed on their own bile for so long that it has blinded them to reality and taken them to new heights of hypocrisy.

And so, they look the other way while the country’s sovereignty is progressively imperiled by indebtedness from dubious deals with China but get worked up by imaginary threats to sovereignty posed by a mere examination certificate.

They protest about foreign interference when the US Department of Justice investigates MO1 for the largest action ever undertaken under the US Kleptocracy Asset Recovery Initiative, but have nothing to say about recent revelations that the former government had secretly appealed to the US for help to cling to power in the event they lost the popular vote.

They make a fuss about Chinese education but don’t seem to notice the rising number of international schools in the country offering British, American, Australian or Arab national curricula. They have no problem accepting foreign curricula but get their knickers in a knot over the curriculum of a declining number of local Chinese schools. They howl and scream against Chinese education at home but quietly send their sons to China to study.

A sham construct

Their whole argument against UEC recognition (as well as related issues) is simply a sham construct, a fig leaf to cover the racism that lurks behind it.

To be sure, they themselves don’t really believe all the allegations they tirelessly throw about, but it is useful to stir up the masses and generate the outrage they need to pressure the PH government into acceding to the so-called Malay agenda while plotting their own return to power.

After all, who really believes that the Malays are about to be “bastardised” in their own country as former Prime Minister Najib Razak warned recently (and this from the very man who did more to “bastardise” the nation than anyone else). Or that Christianity is about to become the official religion of the country, as UMNO Supreme Council member Lokman Noor Adam claims.

They know it’s all fake news but they are more than willing to spread it to fuel fears and exploit insecurities for the sake of power; national unity be damned.

How will PH respond?

Undoubtedly, Malay supremacist groups now pose the biggest challenge to the PH government and the reform agenda. How PH responds to this challenge will determine not only the very character of our nation going forward but, quite possibly, the outcome of the next election.

For a start, PH leaders need to go on the offensive to rebut the unfounded and nonsensical allegations being made by Malay supremacists. Fabricated allegations and false charges must not be allowed to stand.

As well, they need to do a far better job convincing the rural heartland that, far from weakening race and religion, the reforms now under way will benefit them more than anyone else, that having a clean government staffed by capable, honest and accountable leaders dedicated to enriching the nation instead of themselves is in the best interests of all Malaysians.

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Ultimately, the biggest contribution that the PH government can make to the future of our nation will be to moderate a national conversation on how our nation will be defined and the steps that must be taken to get there. After decades of racism and bigotry, it won’t be easy, but ignoring it is no longer an option.

Dennis Ignatius is a former ambassador.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.

Tengku Adnan:Overstaying his welcome

April 19, 2018

Tengku Adnan:Overstaying his welcome

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An Empty UMNO Vessel Makes the Most Noise

Tengku Adnan, the (caretaker) Minister for Federal Territories and UMNO Secretary-General followed a well-worn pattern of fearmongering when he warned recently of the threat posed by Christian evangelists.

Speaking to civil servants in Putrajaya last week, he cautioned them to be wary of the DAP (and by extension Pakatan Harapan) because, according to him, many DAP leaders are Christian “evangelists.”

Continuing, he stated that from Catholicism they become Protestants and from Protestants they become evangelists and born-again Christians, Methodists, etc.  “If they are Catholics, I can still believe them,” he said, “but when they are evangelists, they are considered new Christians. It is a problem.”

He went on to hint that the country’s sovereignty, the special rights of the Malays, the Malay language and many other things would be “destroyed if we are not careful.”

Appalling ignorance 

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UMNO Kelptocrats with the their Boss

In the first place, his remarks reveal an appalling ignorance about the Christian faith. He does not appear to even understand some of the Christian terms that he uses and yet  he is ready to condemn Christians. And he insults all Christians by trying to divide the Christian community into good Christians and bad Christians on the basis of their denominational affiliation.

If that is what he believes, he should explain what he thinks of the evangelical Christians who until the dissolution of parliament sat with him in cabinet and are part of BN. Are they, too, considered a threat to national security or are they good Christians by virtue of their support for UMNO?

An admission of failure?

The penchant of UMNO leaders to divert attention from pressing national issues by constantly playing up one imaginary threat or another – the Chinese, the Christians, the Jews, etc. – is tiresome and speaks more about their political bankruptcy than anything else.

It is, as well, simply mindboggling that a senior UMNO minister would be even obtuse enough to suggest that a small minority faith community [there are less Christians than UMNO members, for goodness sake] could depose the monarchy, overthrow the government, impose their faith on Muslims and abolish Malay rights. And this in a country that is staunchly Islamic, where Malay-Muslims vastly outnumber other ethnic and religious groups and have a near total monopoly of political, economic and military power.

If Tengku Adnan genuinely believes that our national institutions are still so weak and vulnerable after more than 60 years of UMNO rule, it would be a stunning admission that UMNO has completely failed the Malays, and indeed all Malaysians, and should be promptly removed from office come May 9th.

Faith and politics 

Of course, everyone understands that UMNO and the DAP are sworn political enemies and disagree on almost every issue. In a democracy, however, politicians discuss and debate their differences in a sensible and civilized way in order to give the voting public a better understanding of their respective positions.

What they don’t do is belittle their opponents’ religious beliefs or indulge in blatant racism and bigotry.

As a politician, Tengku Adnan should have the courage, if not the decency, to meet his political opponents head-on in a debate and challenge them on issues of importance rather than hide behind the walls of bigotry and hate and make snide remarks about their faith.

And in case he hasn’t noticed, non-Muslim politicians have, in general, been careful not to inject their faith into politics. You don’t hear non-Muslim politicians quoting their respective religious text, framing issues in a religious context or demonizing other faiths when discussing political issues.

It is not because they are less fervent in their faith but because they understand that in a multi-faith setting it is best to leave religion out of politics. After all, they are not in politics to promote their faith or to burnish their religious credentials but to promote policies, programmes and ideas that would help build a united, stable and prosperous nation for all Malaysians irrespective of race or religion.

Issues that matter 

Tengku Adnan should also know that the Christian agenda, if there is indeed one, is the same agenda that all Malaysians share  – a peaceful, united and prosperous nation. In fact, it was what UMNO itself used to care about before it allowed itself to be seduced by power and privilege. 

Rather than focusing on imaginary threats and sowing division and discord, therefore, Tengku Adnan might better serve voters by focusing on the issues that matter to  all Malaysians  – respect for the Constitution, good governance, corruption, national unity, the rising national debt, and the high cost of living. 

All the other issues – the position of Islam, the monarchical system, the special rights of Malay-Muslims as enshrined in the Constitution – are, in reality, non-issues because they are accepted and respected by all Malaysians including Christians. Only politically bankrupt leaders keep harping on these things because they have nothing better to talk about.

A great disservice

Tengku Adnan does Christians a great disservice by cynically stoking anti-Christian hostility to advance his political objectives. It recklessly endangers the safety and security of Christians at a time when radical militants are already targeting non-Muslims places of worship, as the police warned recently. It also feeds the kind of sentiment that very likely led to the abduction and forced disappearance of three Christian leaders last year. He ought to be ashamed of himself.

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Message to Minister Nazri Aziz: Don’t Talk Crude

February 27, 2018

Message to Minister Nazri Aziz: Don’t Talk Crude

Pondan? Ayam? What has become of this country?